Of the fandoms smothered by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, the sport suffered at least as badly as the movies, if not more. Since sport depends on performing live in front of thousands of viewers, social distancing and quarantine measures have decimated the sporting experience. And especially in the USA, the games are still played in mostly empty arenas and artificial crowd noise.
Unfortunately, it was also a golden opportunity for the video games that support these leagues to shine. It all went indoors last spring, and sports fans nestled their favorite games on their couches, along with Netflix cinephiles and gamers immersed in their open worlds.
This year, Polygon’s Samit Sarkar and Owen Good voted against nominating and designating a sports video game of the year that would come from largely incremental updates to established titles in the final year of a console generation. Instead, we’ve written essays about the four titles we’ve spent most of our gaming time in – and the service these games provide to sports fans who are deprived of something that popular culture takes for granted, if not ubiquitous : the human drama of athletic competition.
MLB The Show 20 and NHL 21
In early June, I wrote about the baseball-shaped hole in my life that caused the coronavirus pandemic and how I tried to fill it MLB The Show 20. Back then, the possibility of a real baseball season in 2020 was still open. It wasn’t until later in June that the MLB owners forced the players into a 60-game season that would run from late July to late October.
I have to admit, I didn’t think all sports leagues would make it, but they did – albeit with a few scattered COVID-19 outbreaks and a few Bone head moves. And for all of the unique conditions that this season’s MLB games have been played in, here’s the thing: It felt like real baseball. I spent a lot of time watching my Yankees in the summer and fall, which meant I no longer needed MLB The Show as a coping mechanism.
That’s not bad to speak of one of my long-time favorite video game franchises, and of course, MLB The Show games and MLB games aren’t mutually exclusive – I get different kinds of joy out of it. But when you use the video game as a substitute for the real thing, as opposed to an accompaniment, you find that it doesn’t really hold up.
Interestingly enough, I recorded MLB 20 once again after The real baseball season ended. It turned out to be a great example of PlayStation 4’s built-in backward compatibility: it runs at 60 frames per second in native 4K resolution on the new console. MLB 20 was in fact the first PS4 game I played on my PS5 – it’s never far from my heart.
I have the same fondness for EA Sports’ NHL franchise, which I’ve played since the mid-1990s. When my beloved Rangers were swept out of the NHL playoff qualifying round in early August, I turned to EA.
The most promising element of NHL 21 was a long-awaited refresher on Be a Pro career mode, which is my favorite thing in pretty much every sports game. I jumped to Be a Pro a few days after the real NHL draft in which the Rangers picked Alexis Lafrenière with the number 1, and in the game I managed to get drafted by the Rangers themselves!
I was disappointed with NHL 21‘s Be a Pro – you can read my full review for more details – but I’ll say that gaming has given me a new appreciation for what professional athletes have been through when it comes to playing sports under pandemic restrictions .
This year, developer EA Vancouver spiced up the Be a Pro experience with cutscenes in which your created player interacts with their head coach, agents or teammates, as well as the media. In many of them, a teammate invites you on a group outing, such as going to the beach or watching a Broadway show. It was impossible to see this stuff NHL 21 – also as a mere dialog selection in text fields – and Not Think of all the activities that the pandemic has forced us to abandon.
The life of professional athletes is quite limited, especially during the season, but they have plenty of opportunities to relax during downtime. To be isolated in the “bubbles” of Edmonton, Alberta and Toronto and not being able to escape the confines of their hotels must have been incredibly tough on the players and their sanity. I’m not sure if access to video games would have eased the monotony. – –Samit Sarkar
F1 2020 and NBA 2K21
The reality of the global pandemic finally landed on me on March 12th. On that day, the NBA suspended their season and Formula 1 announced the postponement of two more races, removing the first four events from their 2020 calendar. When I read the message on my phone that the brand new Vietnam Grand Prix was canceled, my first thought was, “The only place we’re going to see this course is F1 2020
That is still the case; The Hanoi race is also not on the 2021 calendar. (An official government key to promoting the race was arrested on an unrelated matter, and The Vietnamese government decided not to continue the project.) When F1 2020 Launched on July 6th, I spent as much time learning about the Hanoi Street Circuit as I did the game’s new career mode, in which you take responsibility for your own racing team and all of its wonderful details.
Hanoi has a 1.5-kilometer straight that connects a roundabout with two apexes on turns 8 and 9 with the hairpin of turn 11. Even if you use a Ferrari engine for your new team, you’ll die halfway with the backmarker chassis and aerodynamics off the shelf that starts the game. No setup gave me the straight line speed to fend off McLaren or Renault, let alone Racing Point. Everything I tried was passed down to me as if I was running in low fuel mode.
Hanoi’s challenge surprised me. Despite the AI difficulty in the upper 90s, my team finished fifth in the 2020 season and even took podium places in Bahrain and Hungary. Our best race by far, however, was tenth place in a purely fictional Grand Prix of Vietnam.
After getting beaten up on the straight and falling to 14th place on my first set of tires, I decided on heavier, medium-sized treads for my first pit stop. It kept me out longer than the guys who chose softs and gave me some breathing space even when I was in 13th place. I was also able to switch back to soft tires at the end of the race if the others were on medium.
I was five seconds from tenth with eleven laps to go and on the final lap I caught both Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat (on heavier tires) with a double pass around the outside of the hairpin at Turn 11. It could be the only time be that I can ever see the Vietnam Grand Prix. But it was the single biggest point I’ve ever made in a virtual racing career spanning four years and hundreds of hours.
F1 2020 was one of the top two examples of video games that stepped in with non-stop excitement when real leagues had to close. NBA 2K20 and 2K21 assuming the other. We haven’t heard that much this year about what the pandemic did to recreational sport. But a lost basketball season also includes thousands of missing YMCA, Church League and street court games. Basketball fans were wandering online for both the experience and the NBAs when the pandemic turned both off.
I’ve played more pickup basketball NBA 2K20th and 2K21 than ever before, in other video games or in real life. I have complained many times that the Visual Concepts NBA 2K series is so complex and technically demanding that you have to work on your game bit by bit as you would in real life. Well, with a free summer thanks to a vacation, I finally had time. I also reinvented myself as a great man.
I remembered my own experience in the Church League when I met my growth spurt before anyone else at the age of 12 and found out how much easier the game gets the closer you get to the edge. a paint beast, in the language of NBA 2K. And then I got down to work on my low post game in The Rec and The Park, the game’s cooperative / competitive modes. I developed muscle memory to drive to the baseline. then drive into the lane; now the drop step. I’m still a little too panicked for a good post shimmy, but I’ll get there.
It made sense to make it big instead of hanging around the wing and lifting bricks. I have no significant ball handling movements; I’m more useful when I set a pick (and then unrolled) than when I call a teammate and squirt past my husband. Bit by bit, I synthesized a low post game that was helpful to all sharpshooting playmakers and playmaking sharpshooters NBA 2K20‘s Park (and now The City, in NBA 2K21 on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X).
Has it always been a success? No. I got a lot of C + teammate reviews, not just at the beginning but also when I thought I figured it all out. “Yeah, go back to MyCareer,” a teammate wrote to me after a particularly horrific, high-revenue game. But by and large I found that NBA 2K20 and 2K21 embody the best of sports video games. Not because of their presentation, signature animations or NBA 2K21Next generation sweat droplets. It’s best because of how MLB The Show 20It will reveal your real strengths as a player and then challenge and inspire you to make them even better. – –Owen Good